War as presented in history class often seems a straightforward thing—there is some dispute, various countries take various sides, there are battles where people die, and at some point it comes to an end with an international treaty. Simplification is necessary when you’re presenting a lot of material in a short time (particularly when students are cramming for tests), but this version of history is misleading because it ignores the variety of realities that people experience during any war, particularly the different realities of civilians living where the war is being fought. As the African proverb goes, when the elephants fight, the grass suffers.
Cinema can provide an excellent corrective to the broad-stroke method of historical narration, by focusing on the lived experiences of a few characters. There have been some truly great films that do this for the Holocaust, including Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002) on the narrative side, and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) on the documentary side. Of course, there are also quite a few movies, both features and documentaries, about the Holocaust that are just OK, or less than OK, because that’s true about any kind of movie—some are great, some are bad, and most are somewhere in between.
Claus Räfle’s The Invisibles is one of those in between movies. It has an interesting premise—telling the story of four Jews who survived the Nazi period in Berlin by hiding out, some in fairly plain sight—but as a film, it just doesn’t work. The main problem is that Räfle chose to mix two styles of filmmaking—straight-up talking heads interviews with the survivors, and dramatic re-enactments of their stories—in a way that is thuddingly repetitive rather than enriching, basically acting as the narrative version of mickey-mousing. Seriously, you hear one of the survivors saying in an interview “I felt a bit uncertain” and then you see the actress cast in that role looking uncertain—that’s how obvious the combination of segments is.
It’s too bad, because the stories told in this film could have succeeded in either a feature film or in a straight-up documentary, and either approach would have enriched our understanding of the different ways people find to survive even the most hazardous conditions. Cioma Schönhaus (Max Mauff) makes his living forging documents, after forging one for himself stating that he is allowed to remain in Berlin to work as a laborer. Ruth Arndt (Ruby O. Fee) and her brother (Lucas Reiber) hide in a single room housing several other people as well. Eugen Friede (Aaron Altaras) moves in with a sympathetic family, pretending to be their cousin. Hanni Lévy (Alice Dwyer) bleaches her hair blonde and spent much of her time among the crowds of Germans around the Kurfürstendamm, a commercial area and nightlife center. Of course, they could never really feel secure, and constant alertness along with the willingness to move quickly if necessary was necessary for survival. But they made it, as did about 1,700 Jews among 7,000 who remained in Berlin during the war, and the difference between being alive and being dead outweighs anything else that might have happened.
Räfle’s refusal to pick a lane is underlined by the way he combines the interview segments with the re-enactments. On the one hand, the soundtrack often continues seamlessly across cuts, tying them together. On the other hand, the tonal contrasts between the two types of segment—dark and muted for the reenactments, light-filled for the interviews—underlines their differences, and makes every cut feel that much more jarring. He also includes what appears to be archival footage (either that or the whole world suddenly went black and white, only to return to color after the next cut), which serves no purpose but to further kill any momentum that might have been building. Black and white title cards regularly appear on screen, providing historical details, which threaten to make the viewing experience more like an illustrated lecture than a film.
One point that may not be familiar to Gentile audiences is the fact that some Jews worked for the Nazis, informing on other Jews. That reality is embodied in this film in the character of Stella Goldschlag (Laila Maria Witt), who turned other Jews in to the Gestapo in hopes of receiving better treatment for her parents (spoiler alert—it didn’t work). Including her character in this film is a useful reminder that there are always opportunists ready to exploit any situation to their own benefit, and that no ethnic group can claim purity in this regard. The Invisibles also illustrates the fact that some Germans aided Jews, at great danger to themselves, because there are also good people in just about any situation and any ethnic group. There’s nothing new in either of those thoughts, but they always bear repeating. | Sarah Boslaugh